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Thursday, April 15, 2021

History rediscovered by school door: George Washington camped here

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Social studies teachers Dave Battafarano, left, and Donato Rufo led a campaign to mark George Washington's campsite near Delcastle. Photo by Kathy K. Demarest, NCC Vo-Tech School District
Social studies teachers Dave Battafarano, left, and Donato Rufo led a campaign to mark George Washington’s campsite near Delcastle. Photo by Kathy K. Demarest, NCC Vo-Tech School District

A decade-long quest to properly mark the history that was made in 1777 on land where Delcastle Technical High School now stands ended Wednesday with the installation of an official marker.

The marker, by the school’s main entrance on Newport Road, refers to George Washington’s earthworks and camping by 11,000 troops between the battles of Cooch’s Bridge and Brandywine.

It came from a history club founded by social studies teachers Donato Rufo and Dave Battafarano.

“We wanted to tap into kids’ historical curiosity,” Rufo said. “What used to be here?”

 

And what more impactful place than the school they’re in?

“A great battlefield is an asset to any state,” they wrote in a PowerPoint. “It is well to cherish ground hallowed by heroic action. The area around Delcastle then was ‘almost hallowed ground.’ 11,000 men and beasts assembled there, waiting, preparing, doing the things that soldiers do when waiting for their fate. Campfires, building, digging, eating, laughing, crying … an incredible human drama … all literally under our very feet.”

“There was a time when this was history was known,” Rufo said. “We think it was just lost.”

Orders, diaries and letters from the period refer to the encampment on a bluff by the Red Clay Creek, somewhere between Newport, Stanton and Marshallton (then called Buckingham). There was a council of war Sept. 6 at Hale-Byrnes House, three miles away. 

 

Nearby roads are Washington Avenue and Lafayette Street (the marquis de Lafayette was a key ally to the Colonists), and a 1948 map refers to Washington Heights and Liberty. A similar state historical marker used to be a half-mile further north, but Battafarano speculates it was lost to an accident. 

“We’re not saying 11,000 troops were on our parking lot,” Battafarano said, but they feel an unnamed creek between the school and its athletic fields was a prime spot. They were also attracted to a nearby bluff that would have been enhanced for sentinels with the earthworks the marker mentions.

They researched photos, records and material found online, and a connection with Newark archaeologist Wade Catts led to the details they needed. “He gave us the legitimacy,” Rufo said.

 

Catts brought the research to groups who “rewrote the historical record,” Battafarano said, referring to preparations for the Sept. 11 Battle of Brandywine. “History hasn’t changed. It’s been added to.”

Both teachers have used the encampment and their research to enhance classes, including American history, sociology and civics and government.

“From September 4-9, 1777, approximately 11,000 men under the command of General George Washington encamped on the grounds of what later became Delcastle Technical High School,” the marker says.

 

“The American army occupied a strong defensive position on the east side of Red Clay Creek, between Newport, Stanton, and Marshallton, and blocked the British army’s route to the Red Clay and beyond. Soldiers built earthworks and destroyed bridges to defend the principal road to Philadelphia. In response to the British army’s maneuvers under Sir William Howe, Washington moved his troops to Chadds Ford on September 9, setting the stage for the Battle of Brandywine.”

The two teachers got the marker, but they were unable to convince school administrators to change their mascot from the Cougar to something historically significant, like the Continentals. 

They’re seeking another marker. After the Revolutionary War, the site was the Woodward farm for more than a century, and before Delcastle was built in the late 1960s, it was the Edwina Kruse School for Colored Girls, where students lived on the farm and learned about farming life.

 

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